In the first book: Mr. Gradgrind is a man who is all about propriety and facts, He scolds Sissy, whose father works with the horses in the traveling circus for using the informal version of her name and not being able to define horse. Two of Gradgrind’s children, Thomas and Louisa go to see the circus after school, but they run into Gradgrind who tells them to return home. Gradgrind’s close friend is Josiah Bounderby, who is a wealthy factory owner. Josiah likes to lie about abuses in his childhood. Bounderby and Gradgrind kick Sissy out of school because they feel she is a bad influence. At this point it is discovered that Sissy’s father has abandoned her. Sissy is given a choice between returning to the circus or being educated. Sissy chooses the circus. Meanwhile Tom and Louisa are disenchanted with the education they have received. We then meet Stephen Blackpool a man who is in an unhappy marriage. When he asks Bounderby about obtaining a divorce Bounderby tells him that divorces are expensive. Gradgrind then marries Louisa of to Brounderby who is thirty years older.
In the second book: Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer manage Bounderby’s new bank in Coketown. A man names James Harthouse is introduced to Bounderby. He finds Bounderby to be quite dull be is infatuated with Louisa. We then discover that Tom is working for Bounderby who he does not like. At a town meeting Blackpool learns that he is to be shunned because of Slackridge’s accusation of treason. This is because Blackpool refuses to join the union. Bounderby fires Blackpool when he tries to explain the situation. Louisa gives Blackpool money and Tom later meets him in private. Then there is a robbery at the bank and Blackpool is suspected. Mrs. Sparsit thinks that Louisa and Harthouse are having an affair. The fact is Harthouse is in love with Louisa but Louisa is not interested. Mrs. Sparsit then decides to follow Louisa, who is going to visit her father. Upon reaching her father, Louisa faints saying that she is unable to express emotion due to her education.
Book three: Mrs. Sparsit has told Bounderby of what she saw. Gradgrind tells Bounderby that Louisa rebuffed Harthouse’s advances. He also tells him that Louisa needs time to recover from her emotional ordeal. Bounderby is angry at Mrs. Sparsit for misleading him. Bounderby issues Louisa an ultimatum, she chooses to allow him to end their marriage. Sissy tells Harthouse to leave Coketown, which he does. Bounderby is suspicious when he discovers that Blackpool was visited by Louisa and Tom the night the bank was robbed. Bounderby is exposed as a liar when Mrs. Sparsit finds his mother, who reveals that he had a good life. This leads to Bounderby firing her. Blackpool dies from injuries sustained from falling down a shaft. Sissy and Louisa suspect that Tom robbed the bank Sissy and Gradgrind help him to leave town by joining the circus.
The first image that the reader gets of Coketown is how dirty it is "It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage” (Dickens). The town itself appears idyllic with everything looking the same. If one looks beyond the surface, they will see that the river is green with pollution, and the air is smoke filled
The town of Coketown is a dystopian society which is symbolized by it being covered in perpetual smoke clouds. The reason for the lack of color in the town is Mr. Bounderby. Bounderby owns most of the town and employs many people. Bounderby is a man of little humor and no imagination. He does not believe in trite things such as emotions. Due to his position in the town, there is a stifling of creative potential and happiness. One can see this depicted when Sissy is tossed out of school because she has an imagination, when Bounderby tells Blackpool to remain with the wife who makes him miserable and when he gives Louisa the ultimatum, even though it is obvious that she needs a little time. I also think that the smoke represents the corruption and the pollution brought by the industrial revolution. For example, Bounderby is deceiving the town by telling everyone about the poor childhood he suffered. He actually grew up comfortably. I think that it also represents dreariness of both Bounderby and Gradgrind due to their utilitarian lifestyle.
The smoke that hovers over the town being shaped like serpents has an evil connotation. I believe that Dicken’s was not only saying the industrialization and utilitarianism not only smothers the light and creativity that is inside a person but that the industrialization and utilitarianism is evil and is based on greed. The serpent smoke can also be seen as Bounderby’s himself and his effect on the town. Like the snake of biblical lore, he is deceitful. His deceit has destroyed the morale of the whole town. Just like the serpents lies led to mankind being cut off from god’s light. Bounderby’s lies and greed has cut the people of Coketown off from the light also, both literally and figuratively. Bounderby himself sees the serpent smoke as a good sign because to him it means that the factory is making a profit. This shows that Bounderby allows the smoke to act as a moral barrier between him and his workers. He refuses to see beyond his own pocketbook and does not care about the lives of his workers.
Fire is the squandered creativity of Louisa. She spends a large amount of time gazing into the fire because it stimulates her thoughts and imagination. But in her environment fire cannot flourish. An example of this is when she tells Gradgrind that due to the education she received she cannot understand affairs of the heart. She then makes an unconscious gesture as "as if upon a solid object, and slowly opened it as though she were releasing dust or ash." The fire of life cannot burn brightly in this environment; it turns to nothing. Even though Louisa wants to have a creative spark she is surrounded by people who snuff out her flame. She spends so much time looking at the fire because it is the only way for her to express herself even if it is only in her imagination.
Despite her childhood and the fact that Louisa is a rather rational character she still seeks the ability to express herself. She is described as being full of “fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow.” (Dickens). The fire that she spends so much time looking at represents her inner child and fantasies. The part of herself that she has been taught to hide because of her upbringing.
Fire can also represent the factories which use fire to provide heat to run the machinery. It can also symbolize the creative and spiritual potential of the Coketown that is being suffocated by the smoke filled utilitarian society that Bounderby endorses.
Dickens, Charles. Hard times. Toronto: Bantam, 1981. Print.
Shmoop Editorial Team. "Fire, Sparks, and Ashes in Hard Times." Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 6 Feb. 2016.
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Hard Times.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Web. 6 Feb. 2016.